BANGOR, Maine — It’s already been quite a spring for Bangor High School student Mary Butler.
The sophomore didn’t think things could get much better after helping lead her Rams to an Eastern Maine Class A title and being named to the BDN All-Tournament Team.
But they did, and this time, it was off the basketball court.
Butler’s project and presentation titled “Nanofibrillated Cellulose As the Potential Component of a Low-cost Water Filtration System” won not only first place in the “Energy, Transportation and Environmental Science” category, but also best in show at the Maine State Science and Engineering Fair March 23 in Bar Harbor.
So, what is nanofibrillated cellulose?
“Basically it involves processing and grinding up plant material to create small fibers that you put into a suspension with water and then coat onto a sheet of paper to create a fairly inexpensive water filter,” said Butler. “There’s a really small difference between the size of a water molecule and a water pathogen like E. coli. So the goal is to create a filter with the perfect size that allows water to pass through, but not the pathogens.”
For those who prefer a more detailed description:
“With the fibers, there’s a meyer rod that has ridges in it and these fibers, when you lay them down in a line on the cellulose and coat it using the rod, the ridges on the rod catch the fibers and pull them,” she explained. “As you repeat the process, it creates a patchwork.”
Clearly, Butler is not a stereotypical jock or athlete.
“The most frequently asked question I get asked is, ‘Can kids do our STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] Academy course and sports at the same time?’” said Cary James, teacher and head of the science department at Bangor High. “Mary Butler is the poster child for that program right now as a kid who can manage and excel at the highest level in both the classroom and in sports.”
The daughter of Paul Butler — Bangor High School principal — and Angela Butler earned $1,200 for her best in show award as well as an expenses-paid trip to Phoenix May 12-17 to enter the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair, where she will compete with as many as 1,500 students for a $75,000 grand prize. Not bad for someone who just wanted to “get through the day” without embarrassment.
“I was shocked,” Butler recalled about being told she was first in one category. “I thought, ‘This is awesome.’ When they said best in fair, I thought it was a mistake and they mixed up the entry numbers or something.”
Butler wasn’t the only Bangor student to do well. Daniel O’Brien and Daniel Gause won second place in the engineering and materials category, and Andrew Sandweiss was third in Earth, physics and astronomy. In all, the field included 140 projects by 200 students.
This was the first time Bangor students have competed at the Maine state fair in decades.
“We have been in science fairs before, but it’s been awhile. The Maine State Science Fair has been going on for years and years, but it kind of faded a bit over the the years after the Maine Principals’ Association gave it up,” James said.
Last year, The Jackson Laboratory of Maine took over sponsorship and organization.
“Before Jackson Labs revived it, it was a terminal event: You won at the state level, but never went beyond it,” James said. “Now with the connection to ISEF, it f its perfectly with things we’re emphasizing with our STEM program.”
Butler had never even been in a science fair before. Then came STEM. At James’ suggestion, she worked with University of Maine chemical engineering graduate student Finley Richmond on the filter project over last summer. It was arranged by Dr. Doug Bousfield in UMaine’s chemical engineering department.
“I was on the fence about STEM, but some of my friends were talking about it so I thought I’d try it and I ended up really liking it,” Butler said. “And this year, two requirements are you have to do a research project and you have to enter the science fair.”
A complete list of Maine State Science & Engineering Fair category winners follows:
• Best in show: 1. Mary Butler, Bangor; 2. Meagan Currie, Greely; 3. Harrison Pershing, Greely
• Energy, transportation and environmental science: 1. Butler; 2. Ryan Morrison, Greely; 3. Hannah Gutow, George Stevens Academy
• Biochemistry, biology, medicine and plant science: 1. Kristin Dugas, Greely; 2. Brad Spoerri, Greely; 3. Judy Yau, Bethany Hartley and Isabelle O’Bryon, Maine School of Science and Mathematics
• Animal, behavioral and social science: 1. Currie, Greely; 2. (tie) Blaine Ventre, Greely and Declan Campbell, Greely
• Engineering and materials: 1. Pershing, Greely; 2. O’Brien and Gause, Bangor; 3. Josh Coyle, Greely
• Earth, physics and astronomy: 1. Sam Wood, Mount Ararat; 2. Chris Chu, Greely; 3. Sandweiss, Bangor
• Chemistry, computer science and math: 1. Will Johnson, Greely; Owen Potenziano, Greely; 3. Ben Schade and Justin Hamilton, MSSM